Another week, another impressive victory for the 49ers. I have to admit that following Week 10's disheartening tie to the St Louis Rams, a game in which the defense gave up two quick scores to a previously stagnant offense, before struggling to a draw, I was worried about the 49ers, especially their defense. What they've done since is win two games in impressive fashion, on the national stage, with a second-year quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, making his first and second career starts. I have to say, all questions answered, and I won't doubt again.
The stakes in this game were huge for both teams. The 49ers, after easily handling the Bears the previous Monday night still had plenty of questions. In the Bears game, Kaepernick filled in for the injured Alex Smith, and did a great job. Against the Saints, he was chosen to start over a medically-cleared Smith, in one of the most hotly debated personnel decisions in recent memory. The win over the Bears, while impressive, was against a hapless second-string quarterback playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Basically a recipe for disaster for visiting Chicago.
For the Saints, the game was more important. After a horrendous 1-4 start to the season, they clawed their way back to an even 5-5 record. In light of last season's unceremonious playoff exit in San Francisco and all the bounty scandal that followed, New Orleans had some revenge they wanted to exact, and a loss see them fall back under .500.
Both teams were pumped and played their best game. The 49ers, being the more complete team, came out with a 31-21 victory. Colin Kaepernick answered any doubts anyone might have by playing spectacularly for most of the game. His one mistake came after a botch-snapped resulted in a horrible read and throw into double coverage. The interception was made a mute point by the 49ers' defense, who stole the show from the young signal caller, and will be the focal point of this article, as well as any playoff run the 49ers hope to make.
The 49ers defense dominated this game, no question about it. The scoreboard shows 21 points allowed, but seven of them came after Ted Ginn Jr. gifted the ball to the Saints in the red zone after muffing a punt. Two keys to victory were yards after catch and pressure on the quarterback.
The 49ers had 134 yards after the catch on only 16 completions while the Saints were held to 91 yards after the catch, this on 26 completions. 36 of the yards came via Darren Sproles on a dump off pass from Drew Brees on the last play of the game. In fact, most of the YAC was accounted for by Sproles, 60 in total by my rough count. Sproles' receptions frequently come in lieu of a run play and are on passes under five yards (often passes caught behind the line of scrimmage).
The secondary as a whole did a great job against the varied Saints passing attack. According to Pro Football Focus, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson allowed only 17 yards after the catch on the eight completions in their coverage. They also note that Drew Brees was only 3 of 10 on passes over 10 yards. And with the YAC being taken away by the safeties on the 23 completions under 10 yards, it was a long hard slog for the Saints to get anywhere on offense.
While discussing the pass defense, it's probably a good time to mention that the 49ers returned two Drew Brees interceptions for touchdowns. Ahmad Brooks dropped into pass coverage on a long yardage play and Brees appeared to not even have noticed him. The play looked particularly shocking on Brees' part until I read this piece by Eric Branch at SF Gate. The play, a 2nd-and-10, was the first this season that saw Brooks drop into coverage on long yardage. That is to say, every other play this season, Brooks has rushed the quarterback in these circumstances. Vic Fangio drew it up and noted that the Saints appeared to have a play designed to beat that specific coverage, except that Brooks unexpectedly filled the void the Saints were hoping to exploit.
The second interception was returned by Donte Whitner for the score, but the play was made by Dashon Goldson. Goldson hit Marques Colston low on a deep throw over the middle, upending him and dropping him on his head. Colston got a hand on it, popping it into the air and into waiting arms of Whitner who didn't squander the opportunity. He took it down the left sideline, giving the 49ers their second defensive score of the game. The Goldson hit on Colston was one of many hard hits by the 49ers secondary and the Saints pass catchers were under constant threat from start to finish. Goldson later knocked Lance Moore temporarily out of the game on a short pass, just as the Saints were making their last realistic push of the contest. Goldson is playing at such a high level this year, and in light of NaVorro Bowman's recent contract extension, is arguably the best 49er not signed past this season.
Finally, we get to the pass rush. Drew Brees was under pressure from the outset. The 49ers' pass rush, following up their six-sack night against the Bears, got to Brees five times with Ahmad Brooks, Justin Smith, and NFL sack leader Aldon Smith each accounting for 1.5 sacks. The pocket was constantly collapsing around Brees and he was rarely allowed to set his feet long enough to get effective throws off. The stat line of two tackles and zero sacks won't show it, but the unsung hero was Ray McDonald. Some tidbits, again from the good people at Pro Football Focus, demonstrate how well McDonald played. He recorded 8 hurries of Brees, having at least one against each of the five offensive line positions. In the last eight minutes, as the Saints fought to keep in the game, McDonald successfully bull-rushed five different times.
The offense, of course, played it's part. Colin Kaepernick made everyone forget the quarterback controversy for 60 minutes. He threw for 231 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another on a beautifully designed and executed play. It was the same read-option play that Kendall Hunter scored a touchdown against the Bears with, but this time Kaepernick kept it and scampered into the end zone untouched. Kaepernick had the one awful interception, but that was atoned for instantly by the Brooks interception return. There were a few drops from his pass catchers, but once again, the offense appeared more dynamic with Kaepernick leading the way. He was sacked zero times, showing a flare for detecting pressure and evading it which may be the difference in him wresting the job from Alex Smith.
All told it was a great game for the team. It sets the tone for the stretch drive and erases any lingering doubts that I, or the rest of the league, might have had about the 49ers' legitimacy as one of the favorites in the race for the Lombardi Trophy. It also has the team running in high gear as they come into their Week 13 rematch with the St. Louis Rams. The Rams have been tough at home this season and, after the tie in Week 10, the 49ers can use the momentum to exact the revenge on the Rams (many of the players said the tie felt like a loss) that the Saints failed to exact on them.
- The 49ers were held to a season-best for the Saints 375 yards on offense. It is a bit misleading as they did it in only 10 drives. The Ginn muffed punt, plus two INT returns account for the 'missing' drives.
- Of all the comparisons I've read and heard about Colin Kaepernick, the one I like the most is a young Randall Cunningham. Cunningham never did win the big one, but the grace with which Kaepernick jogged into the end zone on his keeper, plus the zip on his passes, makes the shoe fit.
- The win did come at a cost. Both Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter were lost for the season on the same play. Delanie Walker was also injured, but the most recent reports have him walking around fine and it appears he'll be OK. Walker played well, nabbing three catches for 81 yards.